I’m sending you this because I feel like you’re the only ones who would dare run it but please don’t use my name. I went to two of the worst hit areas in New York to help out over the weekend and had two entirely different experiences.
First, I went to Howard Beach in Queens. It’s mostly Italians and Irish, with a few Hispanics. It seemed like a lot of cops and fireman, and lower middle class / working class families. Then we went to Rockaway Beach in Brooklyn that (where we were at least) was all black. Some sounded like first generation African immigrants (we actually saw a woman carrying a huge box on her head). They appeared to be on social assistance or working poor. I’ve been to a couple of third world countries in my life and it felt just like it. I live in Bushwick and the vibe in Rockaways is really similar to the state housing 5 blocks from my place.
Anyway, here’s what happened.
Going without Internet for 14 hours was the extent at which Sandy inconvenienced me. After nearly a week of half-working from my couch, I decided to volunteer on Saturday. I had access to someone with a car and a half tank of gas, so whatever we did we had to keep it short and local. After driving around Williamsburg for an hour, we got in touch with some people who needed help in Queens. We first headed out to Middle Village, then to Howard Beach where we met up with a small team coordinating volunteers throughout Queens.
They were having volunteers canvas Howard Beach and take inventory of what people needed. What we found was people who had their shit together; despite having 14ft of water in their streets and even living rooms a few days prior. Nearly everyone we saw was busting ass and cleaning up their neighborhood. Kids were carrying wet sheetrock while their grandmas held garbage bags. Spirits were high, and most people we happy to see us, knowing that people outside of their community cared. “You kids are angels, thank God” one woman sputtered while crying tears of gratitude. At this point, we hadn’t done anything but ask if they needed supplies. Most people we ran into were like that lady but a few seemed almost insulted we wanted to help. They had it taken care of and didn’t need us slowing them down and fucking their progress up.
After spending about two hours walking around and writing order lists, we headed back to the volunteer station. It quickly became clear what people wanted more than anything were cleaning supplies. Without hesitating, I walked into a (completely dark and rancid) grocery store and found as many gloves and garbage bags as I could and I got them to the addresses in need. We then asked the coordinators “what’s next?” They told us that the Rockaways were in a bad spot and needed supplies immediately. We loaded our car and headed east.
The first thing I noticed about the Rockaways was it looked like Baghdad. Everything was sandblasted and there were overturned cars littering the streets. The second thing I noticed was nearly everyone (aside from cops and volunteers) was standing around.
We first drove down to 113th where they were “all full” as far as donations went. We then crawled our way up to 59th where we found a drop off spot. It was a fire station surrounded by state housing, there were black garbage bags of clothes piled super high and people were rummaging through them. Trash was everywhere.
We parked our car and started unloading. The first thing I set on the ground was immediately snatched away. Then someone grabbed a bag right out of my hand while saying “gimme that!” Then again, as I was making my way back to the car, a woman said “gimme that toilet paper!” pointing to the clearly visible toilet paper inside the back of the car. I handed it to her, reluctantly.
On the next trip two women grabbed a bag out of my hands and started pushing each other for it while arguing. Every time I walked back to the car (a total of about six trips) a young black guy in new clothes would ask, “Any sneakers in there?” Throughout this entire process the only person that said please or thank you was an elderly woman volunteer that had driven out with us.
Look, both these places got slammed and have experienced a lot the past week. These communities need help in a unique way and I should probably be out there helping more and not criticizing hurricane victims. I’m not upset because people didn’t show us gratitude but rather the attitudes of the people I encountered was so starkly different it disappoints me. The people of Howard Beach were acting as if this was challenge to their community, and that they would band together to get their feet back under them. The Rocakways (or at least the sliver of them we experienced) saw this as an opportunity to get free stuff while other people took care of the situation.
As we drove off we chatted about how much longer it’s going to take the Rockaways to recover, and with the attitude of some members of that community whether it would ever fully recover – or if it should. A girl that was riding with said “It’s sad, the environment they’ve been brought up in obviously hasn’t taught them to be motivated to contribute, or to be grateful when it’s appropriate.” That might not be entirely true, but it sure felt that way on Saturday.
*Photos not provided by author but randomly stolen from Instagram.